Josh Tickell is one of the nation’s leading experts on alternative fuels and the author of From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank (2003) and Biodiesel America: How to Achieve Energy Security, Free America from Middle-East Oil Dependence and Make Money Growing Fuel (2006). In 1997, after obtaining a Master of Fine Arts in film from Florida State University, Tickell drove across the country in a diesel Winnebago (dubbed “The Veggie Van”) fueled by used frying oil from fast food restaurants. He also began working on a documentary to chronicle and raise awareness about biodiesel and the green energy movement. The feature-length film, Fields of Fuel, has been winning awards at festivals around the country, including the Audience Award at Sundance, and is scheduled to be released nationwide in September. The film features appearances by Woody Harrelson, Larry Hagman, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and other notable celebrities and cultural icons. In addition to consulting for various environmental companies and organizations and speaking at colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, Tickell is the founder of the Biodiesel America Organization, which was selected in 2005 by former President Bill Clinton to be part of his Global Initiative on Climate Change. The Humanist caught up with Tickell in July to talk about U.S. energy policy, alternative fuel, and his growing reputation as “that biodiesel guy.”
The Humanist: I understand you’re in the final phase of post-production on your documentary Fields of Fuel. Tell us a bit about the film and your experience making it.
Josh Tickell: Basically, Fields of Fuel is a worldwide journey to answer the question: Why did the United States not engage with green energy use after the attacks of 9/11?
We explore the critical parts of the U.S. energy system–including the oil industry, the auto industry, and eventually the government itself–and ultimately reveal the machinery that’s in place to keep the United States from moving toward green energy use. We go around the world to countries like Sweden and Germany, and we see the progress they’ve made with green energy. The comparison is just astounding.
The Humanist: Together with the film, your first book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, and your latest, Biodiesel America, have established you as one of the nation’s leading experts on biofuel. What originally got you interested in alternative energy?
Tickell: I grew up in Louisiana, partially, amongst the oil refineries and I watched a lot of people get sick from the pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency specifies that oil pollution of any kind is, A) non-regulated and B) non-toxic. And so this disallows any accountability whatsoever within the petroleum industry in terms of processing and refining oil. And it essentially allows a tremendous amount of what we call externalization, or passing the costs onto the public or the consumer. The 150 petrochemical facilities in Louisiana generally have some of the highest pollution rates of any industry in the United States. The area along the Mississippi River that contains those facilities has become known as Cancer Alley.
Having seen this situation up close I realized there must be other ways of fueling our society. So I began to look–at a very young age–at solar energy, wind, and other alternative ways to create energy. But it wasn’t until I was in Germany working on an organic farm that I saw biodiesel, which they made themselves.
The concept of biodiesel–not the actual fuel itself but the core concept–was local, sustainable, diversified energy and energy that was created and used in the same area. So it was just a radically different way of doing business than what I had grown up with.
The Humanist: We hear a lot about the good and bad of biofuel generally. Can you talk a little about biodiesel as a specific potential solution to our energy woes?
Tickell: The definition of biofuel refers to a spectrum of fuels that’s as broad as the spectrum we call drugs. Aspirin is a drug, and so is cocaine, but their effects are vastly different. In the same respect, biofuel has been brandished in the media as this one thing. But it isn’t; it’s many different types of fuels.
The subject of most news stories is corn-based ethanol, which is the standard biofuel in the United States. Over a billion gallons is made here each year, with noted deleterious effects. Corn-based ethanol is extremely degrading to the soil and is energy-neutral, if not energy-negative, meaning all of the fossil fuel inputs used to create corn-based ethanol result in very little gain in terms of energy. You might as well just burn gasoline. Moreover, most of the fossil fuel inputs used to make it–the phosphates, the nitrates–run off the soil; very little is actually absorbed. The tremendous amount of these chemicals coming down the Mississippi river has created what is called the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And that dead zone is now the size of Massachusetts.
So the effects of corn-based ethanol are numerous just on the fuels basis. But then we start to look at the international situation where oil prices have doubled in one year, which has made our everyday items more expensive, as well as the core commodities that run our society, like cement, steel, wheat, and rice.
On the far end of the spectrum are biofuels that take very little oil input; things like algae-based biodiesel which is extremely energy-positive and uses no food or land whatsoever. So the spectrum is broad, but wherever you are on the spectrum you’re tied to oil at this stage because we simply don’t produce enough biofuel. Less than one percent of our entire nation’s energy use comes from biofuels.
The Humanist: A recent report from the British government proposed putting the brakes on the biofuel rush due to fears of higher food prices and increased greenhouse gas emissions resulting from its production (and concurrent changes in land use). It sounds like what you’re saying is that some methods for producing biofuel–specifically biodiesel–are more reasonable than others.
Tickell: Exactly. It isn’t biofuel that’s good or bad. It’s the feedstock that either works or doesn’t. And so, when you start to look at this from a place of science, you’ll see that we are dealing with two types of feedstocks; one is made from food, the other is not.
The Humanist: In the film you say that instead of turning food into fuel, we need to turn waste into fuel. Later you meet with scientists who have been experimenting with the production of biodiesel from algae. Does it ever bother you that people are so anxious for answers and solutions but don’t seem to be at all interested in the process? Is there a way that the public’s thinking can be changed to care a bit more about the process of innovation?
Tickell: Here is the core challenge, whether we deal with oil, biofuels, or some other future technology: when encountering an enemy or a threat, it’s human nature to isolate it and then try to blame it or counter it or attack it or annihilate it. We are using brains that perhaps adapted to circumstances that took place a million years ago to cope with the modern circumstances we have inadvertently created.
So while primal human beings had this very simple fight or flight existence, we now have an interconnected society where there is no one piece of the system that can be isolated. So for people to say biofuels are the cause of starvation, or biofuels are the cause of the deforestation, or biofuels are the cause of global warming–that is using a caveman brain to attack modern human issues.
I recently saw UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speak and he said there are one billion people in the world right now who are threatened with hunger and starvation because of rising food prices. Now, because we have people starving, we have to find the reason. If you look at how food is produced globally, biofuels are less than one percent of one percent of agricultural production. So we begin to look at the economic drivers in the system. Oil is obviously an economic driver. It’s in every fertilizer. It’s in every gas tank of every tractor in the entire world. It runs every truck. It runs every grain storage facility.
And agriculturally the system is largely based on monocropping, which is done far from the point of use. We get bananas from Chile, apricots from Portugal, and so on in this interconnected global system of how we use energy, how we use food, and how we transport ourselves. At the end of the day the system is completely predicated on oil and simply isn’t sustainable.
You asked what we can do to engage people in this. I think it goes back to education, and that’s really why I made the movie in the first place. People think the film is about the paradigm of biofuels–it isn’t. The film is actually about the paradigm of sustainability.
The Humanist: Fields of Fuel reveals how U.S. politicians and energy industries have attempted to prevent the widespread adoption of homegrown alternatives to petroleum. Is the biodiesel movement–what your website refers to as a “rag-tag group of scientists, environmentalists, and ex-government hawks”–growing, and can it compete?
Tickell: It’s growing exponentially. That’s the difference, I think, between a movement that becomes viral and something that is just a hobby for people. You can liken the biofuels movement to home beer brewing as something very niche and very small. But if you look at the sustainability movement as one movement–which hasn’t really congealed yet–it is growing. One indicator is called LOHAS, which stands for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability. This is now the largest market sector in the United States, between forty and sixty million American adults.
So the consciousness of the public is rising very fast. The leadership and the corporate activism that responds to that market are not there yet. We have politicians talking green. We have companies talking green. We do have things like greener yoga mats and greener trash bags, but these are band-aids on top of a cancer. We haven’t gotten to the core yet and the core is oil, it is fossil fuel, it is our carbon-based society.
The Humanist: You screened the film for members of Congress this past spring. What was their response like?
Tickell: The response has been almost unequivocally positive. We have seen Barack Obama quoting the film in three separate speeches. We have seen several other members of Congress quoting parts of the film almost word-for-word. And that is the viral effect we’re hoping for. Because when you affect the speaking of politicians you begin to affect the context in which the county operates.
Now, when it goes to theaters could we hope to see a very fast viral spreading of the messages in the film and a very fast viral understanding? My hope is that it will spread so quickly that by the end of the year people–especially young people–will say, “What took you so long?”
The Humanist: One of my favorite parts in the movie is when you ask a Swedish taxi driver why he wants to drive a “green” cab, and he grins and responds, “It’s simple. I have three children.”
As a filmmaker, do you see it as your job to pose the questions surrounding renewable energy in a way to make the answer seem so simple? How hard is it to do that?
Tickell: If you look back at Ancient Greece or the Renaissance, during these major social shifts there were artists and storytellers and scientists and social thinkers and politicians who rose up behind the scenes before the shift occurred. And they began to design the next face of society whether intentionally or unintentionally. This happened in Rome. This happened in England. This happened in different parts of the world in different periods of time, and I would like to think that we are preparing for a sustainable renaissance now. It is going to happen whether we, as a society, attempt to continue business as usual or whether we begin to work together to really hold these values as the primary values of society.
It has happened before in American history when we chose to enter World War II. We chose to reorient our entire society to the goal of beating the Nazis. But that was a discernible, definable enemy. We also chose to go to the Moon. But again, it was against the discernible, definable enemy. It was against Russia; it was against this thing called Communism. Environmental degradation is now the greatest danger, and the greatest challenge that we face as a species.
The Humanist: Of course, powerful forces are trying to convince us that what’s in danger is our freedom.
Tickell: Yes, and those who are telling us that are the same people who are passing laws that curtail the foundation of democracy in this country. Things like the Patriot Act limit personal freedom.
And when politicians who are clearly funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by corporations with specific agendas it becomes very clear who is writing the energy policy. For example, thirteen pages of the recently passed energy bill were taken word-for-word from a letter that was given by Chevron to every member of the House and Senate. (I have a copy of the letter.) Once upon a time Eisenhower called it the “military-industrial complex.” What people didn’t know is that he intended to say “military-industrial-congressional complex,” but decided to strike the word congressional to placate legislators. If you really look at it, today we have a military-petroleum-governmental complex.
So the real question becomes, can we shift from a “me versus you society” to a society that is based on “us.” It’s a huge evolutionary shift. It’s a shift in consciousness, a shift in how we design our society, and how we use our energy.
I can show you biodiesel working in my car all day long. I can show you how to make it. I can give you graphs. I can show you the sustainability aspects. I can prove without a doubt to you whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, whether you live in Mississippi or California, that biodiesel made from algae is a future fuel that is going to totally redefine how fuel and energy is used. But unless we make that evolutionary shift to an inclusive, non-dualistic view of the world, we will be trapped inside the same paradigm we’re in now.
The Humanist: I’ve read about the advent of “cooking oil rustling” whereby used fryer grease is being stolen from restaurants to be used as biodiesel. How do you propose getting more biodiesel into gas stations?
Tickell: It’s an interesting question because it’s kind of the end effect of everything the film talks about. The easy answer is: make more biodiesel.
The Humanist: I suppose you could also say by getting more people to ask for it.
Tickell: Yes, we need to increase consumer demand. We can do that with tax credits for biodiesel use and a carbon tax so all fuel is taxed based on the amount of carbon it emits into the atmosphere. We need all of those things.
And as committed as I am to science being the avenue for us to succeed as a species on the planet, I’m also committed to making sure that people wake up to how the country is being run and how it is being perceived by the rest of the world. The reality is that biodiesel isn’t going anywhere without political leadership.
People always roll their eyes when I say, “Well, we have to change the political structure of the country.” But you can’t succeed with a new technology or a new fuel in a market where oil is subsidized between four and five dollars a gallon. According to Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, according to National Geographic, according to any independent body that has ever studied this, gas at the pump would be more than double the price it is today without the tax subsidies.
So the reality is we need a restructuring of the entire economy and it will happen one of two ways: It will happen either voluntarily because people like humanists, who are very rooted in science and understand that there is a cause and effect to our actions, will take on the process of restructuring America, or it will happen involuntarily. We will continue to ignore the fact of America’s spiraling debt and our need for oil, and at some stage the market will crash, the dollar will become worthless, and the United States will begin to look more like a Third World country. So by one of two ways, we will restructure the economy. The question becomes: Are we going to turn the ship around, or are we going to allow it to crash into the iceberg?
The Humanist: I’d say the film has some dark, intense moments, and there are accusations made, but then there is a transition into a sense of inspiration, in a non-partisan sense. Of course you are going to be talking about the present administration, but I think the film’s overriding sense of hope will certainly work in its favor in terms of a general audience. Tell us a little about the plans for distributing Fields of Fuel.
Tickell: It will have a very short run in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for the Academy Awards. And then the film will be released more widely in September when school starts up.
The Humanist: In addition to writing, filming, and lecturing, you also head the nonprofit organization, Biodiesel America, which used biodiesel-fueled relief ships to deliver 20,000 meals, clothing, and medical supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Where do you find your own personal energy to do so much?
Tickell: When I spend time with other people I realize how their jobs really do end at five o’clock and there is this whole other world that occurs between then and the time they go to sleep, and then they have these things called weekends. For me, I’m just terribly bored without this work. It’s what I live to do.
The Humanist: It’s sustainable.
Tickell: Yes. And I do take breaks. But I feel that if we, as a global culture, don’t deal with the energy issue now it’s very likely that human civilization as we know it will take a radical shift. Because I can see this, I’m in a position of accountability and that is an unfortunate place to be if you want to really have a life with a lot of vacations.
The Humanist: In as much as humanists believe that humankind is ultimately responsible for its actions, do we bear a particular responsibility for preserving the environment?
Tickell: Absolutely, unequivocally yes. And here is the reason: because in the United States we have a society that still bases a lot of its actions on mythology rather than science. And when I say mythology, I don’t mean Zeus and Nike and these types of myths. I mean like the myth that the world will be a better place if we have more war because war is the only way to sustain an economy. Or the myth that we have to have oil or we can’t survive.
People who have an understanding of truth, and of cause and effect understand humans’ place in the world, not as somehow above the law and order of nature. Part of what it means to be human is to understand our place in a pre-established universe. And inside that universe there are certain physical, chemical rules. If you increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere there are certain effects that you have to deal with. And in science there is no pretending, there is no mythology.
And so, I think humanists are a potential group of heroes in the challenge of bringing humankind to an understanding that we have to be accountable for our actions, and that environmental degradation is just a symptom of a culture that is in a failed state. And it takes some personal reckoning to realize that the world we are about to hand the next generation is going to be predicated on limited resources that will be fought over and that inside of that context, peace is impossible.
The only way for humankind to find peace is going to be through science, dedication, and a commitment to recreating society based on the principles of sustainability.
Jennifer Bardi is the editor of the Humanist.